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Newest Signee Latest Example of Sharks Creative Approach to Development

by Missy Zielinski / sjsharks.com

When you reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 12 of 13 seasons, the success on the ice usually translates into picking low on the totem pole in the NHL Draft each June. 

With low picks, and in some cases no picks at all due to trades - a byproduct of their yearly contention - the San Jose Sharks have had to be strategic when scouting amateur players and attempting to restock their prospect pipeline. 

San Jose's newest example of its creative approach to amateur free agency comes in the form of six-foot-three, 210-pound defenseman Jacob Middleton.  

Despite being drafted in the seventh round (210th overall) by Los Angeles in 2014, Middleton was never offered a contract by the Kings, so when he was extended an invitation to attend the Sharks development camp in the summer of 2016, he tried to temper expectations.

"During development camp, [Director of Scouting] Tim Burke was pretty straightforward with me," Middleton said. "I left camp thinking I had no chance here."

A couple months later another invitation came, this time for Sharks rookie camp. Still, the Wainwright, Alberta native came to San Jose with a return flight home already booked.

"I was here to work because that's in every hockey player's blood, but it was also in the back of my head that I might not be staying," Middleton said.

The Sharks development staff was impressed with his progress in the few short months between development and rookie camp. Along with his on ice potential, they began to notice other intangibles that were intriguing.

"Jake sat in my office and said, 'I want to be a professional player,'" Sharks Director of Hockey Operations Doug Wilson Jr. said. "He's extremely mature and very hardworking. The kid has been a brick layer for his entire life."

After rookie camp, he again found himself one step closer to being a pro when he was asked to attend training camp. Then days later, Middleton was offered a two-year AHL contract.

"He put in all the work during the summer and then came in and stole the job," San Jose Barracuda Head Coach Roy Sommer said. "Those are the kind of guys you want in your organization."

With two years of junior eligibility remaining and as the captain of his OHL team, signing with the Barracuda would be considered atypical for Middleton. Yet his summer with the Sharks and the surrounding influences seemed to strike a chord with the blueliner. 

"As a young player coming in, I've gotten to spend time just hearing stories," Middleton said. "Whether it was about Patrick Marleau or Joe Pavelski, or just having conversations with the management and staff - it just lights a fire in you."

Since moving their AHL team out west the Sharks and Barracuda have increasingly used their proximity to their advantage when courting young players to sign with the club. 

"It's very beneficial to be able to say, 'you're not just signing with our AHL team, you're going to be on the ice with staff like Mike Ricci and Bryan Marchment and our front office is going to watch all of your practices," Wilson Jr. said.

That model has quickly become a launching pad to an NHL debut for many young players. During the 2016-17 season alone, nine Barracuda players suited up in a Sharks sweater. 

"When Pete DeBoer lets nine guys get called up and play I think that resonates with the [AHL] guys," Wilson Jr. said.

Many of the players that appeared on both the Sharks and Barracuda rosters over the last two seasons, such as Aaron Dell, Ryan Carpenter and Marcus Sorensen, have had similar paths to the one Middleton hopes to follow. 

Now one year removed from the biggest decision of his career, the 21-year-old isn't regretting anything.

"During our round tables at this summer's development camp, Jake stood up with a gap toothed smile on his face in front of 40 kids and said, 'last season was the best year of my life,'" said Wilson Jr.

Middleton will enter camp this season boasting a three-year entry level NHL contract, as he looks to build off of his first season in San Jose.

"Another three years in 'Cuda Country and 'Sharks Territory," he laughed.

Following the blueliner's successful first season, the Barracuda look to continue the creativity in shaping the future of the Sharks after recently signing newcomers Alexander True and Colby McAuley to similar first-time pro contracts as Middleton. The two forwards will have the same unique opportunity to use valuable resources at their disposal, and San Jose hopes this path becomes a roadmap for many young players to come.

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